Two Pastors Who Chose To Renovate not Rewrite Their Constitutions
Editor’s note: We talked to two different pastors about why they chose to work with the documents they had, rather than to write new ones.
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By Mark Vroegop
The first home I purchased was the ugliest on the block. The pitted, flaking, and whitewashed cedar, along with a yellow door and lime green trim screamed, “No way!” But we fell in love with the house’s character and charm. We renovated every square inch, inside and out, and our neighbors noticed. In fact, while we were painting the house one day, a neighbor shouted, “Thanks! It looks so much better.”
There is something redemptive about a renovation project. I know not everyone agrees, and I’ve heard horror stories about a “money pit” house, but I think restoration projects create a different kind of beauty—one that connects to history.
The most historic aspect of a local assembly of believers is typically its constitution. And in terms of important documents, the church constitution stands apart from anything else except the Bible itself. A constitution defines the governance and limitations of how a group of people will function as a church. Church constitutions matter.
However, what served the church 50 or 150 years ago will likely need some updates or changes. When that time comes, is it better to start over? Should you completely re-write your constitution? Perhaps. Sometimes starting from scratch works well. Or maybe you should consider a renovation.
As a pastor who has renovated houses, churches, and constitutions, I’d like to offer five reasons for renovating your church’s constitution:
1. It affirms the past.
Every church has a history, and I often find new pastors have little regard for what happened prior to their installation. In the commendable desire to lead the church toward a new future, they forget that every church has an important and rich story of God’s grace. By using the old constitution as a baseline or starting point, a pastor has the opportunity to build on the church’s history instead of eclipsing it. Taking the best of the old constitution and renovating it can honor long-time church members and affirm the history of the church.
2. It clarifies what is most important.
Theological and pastoral triage—determining the order of importance when it comes to church issues—is perhaps the most difficult task in pastoral leadership. All issues do not have the same necessity for change. For example, a significant doctrinal problem in a statement of faith should be treated differently than the percentage for a voting quorum. By renovating an old constitution, a pastor has the opportunity to help his church understand and appreciate which issues are more important than others. A constitutional revision is a great teaching moment for a church.
3. It creates a culture for future changes.
Constitutions often become outdated and ineffective in churches with a history of infrequent change. Over time the document is virtually ignored, and the constitution only becomes relevant during a church crisis—the worst time to make any changes. Renovating the constitution helps a congregation realize that founding documents can and should be continually improved, setting a church on a healthy path for more changes in the future.
4. It models humility and wisdom.
Renovating a constitution provides church leaders an opportunity to demonstrate that brand-new is not always better. It allows a pastor to carefully consider what really must change, to listen to concerns over particular issues, and to choose a wise path forward. Sometimes a complete change will be required, but I think a constitutional revision presents a unique opportunity to demonstrate a humble spirit.
5. It paces change for unity.
Making a number of changes in a church, while necessary at times, can inadvertently create questions, fears, and even division. Renovating a constitution does not forestall this entirely, but it can provide the opportunity to pace changes over time for the sake of unity. A particularly divisive issue can be deferred for a future revision while other more agreeable issues can still be addressed immediately. The joy of moving forward in unity creates momentum for future changes. Oneness over time can yield great fruit, and renovating a constitution sets this up well.
Whether a home or a church constitution, renovations usually take longer and have their share of surprises. But I think they’re worth considering. A church constitution with both history and contemporary relevance is a beautiful document. Who knows? You might even have a long-time member say, “Thanks! That’s much better.” So, don’t give up on that old constitution just yet. Consider renovating it first.
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By Curtis Hill
When I was called to serve as Senior Pastor of Ogletown Baptist Church, I along with many in our church recognized that we had not been tending to our governing organizational documents and structure as well as we needed to. Over time (in the absence of recognized elders), I asked the church to designate a “task force” of elder-qualified individuals (of which I was a part) to work on recommending polity changes to our congregation, as well to recommend revisions to our governing documents.
The work of the task force came through a series of recommendations over 18 months. Rather than do a massive one-stop overhaul of our constitution, we felt it would serve our congregation best to do it in a piecemeal fashion.
The essence of the revisions to date have been primarily in these areas:
- We proposed a revision to an article that stated our church documents ( statement of faith, covenant, membership procedures, etc.) couldn’t be revised under any circumstance—ever. We sought legal expertise to determine the best path of action, and worked hard to explain to the congregation the necessity of revising this article to our constitution.
- Previously, the full text of our (inadequate) statement of faith was actually included in our constitution. Our task force felt it would be best to adopt the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as our official statement of faith (thereby preventing us from needing to create a new one from scratch). We also have incorporated the statement of faith by reference, rather than having it in full text in our constitution.
- Previously, the full text of our (antiquated) church covenant was also included in our constitution. Drawing upon several covenants as helpful models, we crafted and proposed a significant revision of the covenant, and similarly to our statement of faith, incorporated it in our constitution only by reference.
- We revised articles pertaining to membership, particularly related to how members would be received and dismissed. We also addressed issues of the age of members (which previously had not been addressed, even as the church had an occasional history of baptizing and welcoming into voting membership children of very young ages). We also clarified the church restoration process as well as attendance expectations for members.
Each of these revisions were voted on and approved by well over ninety percent of our congregation, and God has used this work to clarify things and better protect the unity of our church
In the next 12-18 months, I could envision more revision to our constitution. We still have a long way to go in codifying some of the reforms and changes we have made. By working on this in a piecemeal fashion, I believe it has gone a long way to protect the unity of our church, even though I recognize the need to formalize and codify our new polity, policies, and procedures. My prayer (which has been answered) has been that God would protect our church and her unity until we are able to act wisely in implementing more changes and reforms as a congregation.